Gender expectations begin at birth

Painting a baby girl’s nursery pink and giving boys tractors but not dolls – does it matter? According to Catherine Riley of the Women’s Equality Party, and Laura Alvarado of Tomato Tutors, gender expectations are an issue. Here’s why…

A recent article we published, on gender preference and whether we pay too much attention to the sex of our unborn babies, attracted lots of attention. It seems this topic is one that divides, challenges and frustrates parents. Perhaps because so many of us have deep-rooted desires for one sex over the other that we can’t rationalise.

And so this morning we are looking into the gender expectations that we put onto our babies before they’ve even exited the womb, to determine exactly what we expect a baby girl or a baby boy to be like, as they grow up…

During pregnancy, the majority of expectant parents opt to find out the sex of their baby. The reason? Largely, that it will help them to get organised, to work out which hand-me-downs to keep and which to give away. It might determine the colour of the curtains they choose for the baby’s room.

But while painting a nursery pink for a girl, or buying rompers with a tractor print for a boy may seem trivial; a cute distinction between whether the baby is male or female, it could also be seen as be the icing on a cake with many – more worrying – tiers of sexism below.

For instance, cut through the aesthetic gender division of colours and toys and beneath that lie commonly held assumptions of behaviour, based on the child’s sex. That might be that a boy will enjoy climbing and running around, while a girl will sit and play with dolls.

The message is that women stay at home, in domestic roles; looking pretty, while men go out and get important stuff done

Placing boys as active and girls as passive can then have a bearing on which sex the expectant parents would prefer their baby to be. Perhaps a sport-playing parent likes the idea of a boy who’ll love football, or a book-loving parent envisages calm afternoons reading with her daughter.

Catherine Riley, head of communications for the Women’s Equality Party, is frustrated by the perpetuation of gender stereotyping in our society. “This insistence on naturalised gender ‘traits’,” she says, “is part of a cultural construction of girls and boys that creates, rather than responds to, differences based on genetics.

“Gender is learnt, and more so now than ever we are told that girls are gentler, quieter and more collaborative while boys are louder and more demanding. This is not because they are born that way – it’s because they mimic what they see around them.”

As a feminist, my thinking is in line with Riley’s; that gender is something we put on to our children. And yet during my first pregnancy, I was fixated on having a girl. I didn’t know why, but it felt important that my firstborn had a vagina and not a penis. That might sound crude, but it is the only real distinction between girl and boy babies.

Choosing pink over blue or a giving a boy toddler a toy gun and a girl toddler a doll may seem a minor issue

I’m not alone in my gender preference fantasies – over 95% of parents opt to find out the sex of their baby at the 20-week scan. It could, of course, be argued that parents are simply excited about the birth of their baby, and enjoy guessing whether it will be a boy or girl. But the oft-cited reason for finding out the sex – that it will inform colour, clothes and toy choices – flips it into feminist territory.

Again, choosing pink over blue or a giving a boy toddler a toy gun and a girl toddler a doll may seem a minor issue; something to be accepted and not challenged. But what does matter is that these early experiences begin to shape a child’s expectation of what roles they will move into in later life.

For instance, sitting idly and brushing a doll’s hair – or playing dress-up – is harmless fun for a group of young girls. But if this is the only type of play they’re introduced to; while their brothers run around driving cars and shooting people, there is a power imbalance forming. The message is that women stay at home, in domestic roles; looking pretty, while men go out and get important stuff done.

And it’s a top-down issue, because kids learn from their elders. So if a girl is told that she could be prime minister, or a hairdresser, of a full time parent – and a boy is told the same – they will both grow up with the notion that they can move into any line of work, independent of their sex.

But that’s often not what we’re telling our children. Reading traditional fairytales where princesses are saved by a prince on horseback, or encouraging boys to watch Bob the Builder while girls are plonked down in front of Frozen is telling an altogether different story. It is encouraging narrow gender expectations.

What if we removed gender expectations and valued boys and girls as equals?

If society began to value boys and girls equally, and believed that each had the potential to be anything – with regards to personality traits, achievements, interests – perhaps the sex of our unborn babies would be of less interest to us. If girls playing football or boys talking abut their feelings became the norm – our pre-birth gender expectations might fall away.

As it stands, however, we not only have pre-birth gender expectations (that a baby girl will favour a pink room and frilly dresses, while a boy will only want to wear blue or animal prints) but we continue to enforce our ideas about what girls and boys are respectively capable of way into child and adulthood.

Laura Alvarado, founder of Tomato Tutors – and a practising maths tutor – spends a lot of time in family homes and believes parents play a large part in propagating gender segregation. “I think more is expected from girls at a younger age,” she says, “parents see them as being independent sooner.”

It stands to reason that a parent with a strong gender preference will have expectations about how a girl will perform or behave – and that it will differ for a boy. But what if your daughter doesn’t adhere to your notions of what a girl should be like? Is a boy who wears his heart on his sleeve an embarrassment? And will we put pressure on those children to conform to our ideals?

Alvarado observes this with the families she works with. “There are many factors at play but it’s a real mixture of conditioning and innate motivations. I can see sisters who are treated very much the same but who have completely different interests. I think we, as parents and educators, could start by removing bias and gender categorisation of certain activities.

“Let’s make maths, science, coding, football, dolls’ houses, textiles neutral. If we remove labels around the activities, we make them more accessible to children who would normally shy away from something seen as traditionally for the opposite sex. We have all got a masculine and a feminine side and we need to encourage our children to explore both sides of themselves to ensure they grow up with a healthy balance.”

So is there any truth in the idea that girls and boys have traits particular to their sex? “Stereotypes can be proven,” says Alvarado, “but they can also be dismissed. There are always examples of a boy who fits the mound of being super energetic and sporty, but I also see boys who are very introverted and who are real bookworms.”

I’m doing my best to raise my daughter with a wide range of ideas about her possible future, by offering her toy cars as well as dolls and buggies, and dressing her in comfortable clothes that allow her run around – as well as the occasional dress. But it’s great that there are also popular movements like Pink Stinks encouraging non-gendered play, reading and dressing.

What are your favourite books, toys and clothing brands for both girls and boys, that veer from the traditional narrative about what it means to be male or female? 

Photo credit: both images from Designspiration